I am not given to gushing but, with apologies for doing so, I am about to gush. You see, on Saturday evening, I felt very privileged. For on that night, I went to Las Vegas' gorgeous Smith Center for the Arts and saw Stephen Sondheim: A Life In The Theater, An Evening of Music and Conversation.
The event was hosted by Michael A. Kerker, Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Kerker served as moderator, asking Sondheim questions. And, to sing Sondheim's songs, they brought along two of Broadway's best, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole, Arranging the music and accompanying the singers on piano was Tedd Firth.
Sondheim has been traveling with the show for a few years now with a rotating cast of guest artists and moderators. Never having seen the performance elsewhere, I am not sure if Kerker's focus on composers was a function of his work with ASCAP or was what he was "supposed" to do. Even though the questions might have touched on more facets of Sondheim's life (with various performers or directors, for example) it was an interesting conversation and the singers were magnificent.
Kerker began the evening asking Sondheim about his early collaborators, Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) and Jule Styne (Gypsy). He said he has never "been afraid to fall from the highest rung of the theater ladder." Bernstein, however, taught him "to only be ashamed of not trying."
He spoke of Bernstein's 11-room apartment at the Dakota (later the last home of John Lennon) and of how Bernstein worked in a "monk's cell...with a bar and a large couch." Sondheim noted he was only 27 years old when he first worked with Bernstein.
He and Bernstein worked a great deal by phone but, once each week, would meet in Bernstein's office. He introduced the maestro to British newspaper crossword puzzles and they did anagrams competitively. "He never beat me," Sondheim said, "but his daughter did."
Of Styne, he recalled, "His musical mind was so fertile. He would never rewrite anything" but when a revision was needed he'd just start again from scratch.
Sondheim spoke of Oscar Hammerstein, his great mentor in the theater. When he was diagnosed with the cancer that proved terminal, Hammerstein to work with his writing partner, Richard Rodgers. "Dick is going to be bereft when I'm gone," Hammerstein told the young composer.
The collaborated on Do I Hear A Waltz, based on the Arthur Laurents play The Time Of The Cuckoo which had been made into the film Summertime. An admirer of the collaboration of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Sondheim tried to write clever Hart-like lyrics. In We're Gonna Be All Right, an act II song sung by a young couple striving, despite the facts, for a perfect marriage, Sondheim wrote, in part:
"She goes to night school, If it's the right school, He'll permit her. They love their kids, They love their friends too, Lately he tends to hit her. Sometimes she drinks in bed, Sometimes he's homosexual, But why be vicious? They keep it out of sight. Good show, They're gonna be all right."
Rodgers, he told the audience, at first accepted the lyric but, after showing it to his wife Dorothy, he rejected it. "She was right," Sondheim said.
The song was performed by Ebersole and Mitchell to a standing ovation - one of several.
As the evening went on, Sondheim discussed his work and musical theater in general. Kerker singled out Showboat in 1927, Oklahoma! in 1941 and Sondheim's own Company in 1970 as musicals that changed the face of the theatre. Sondheim said of it, "It's the first show that combines book and review shows. It doesn't tell a story. It explores a moment in a man's life."
When Kerker used the word "concept," Sondheim said he doesn't like that word. "'Concept' is something that critics and academics say, it doesn't mean anything."
He talked about his writing process - yellow legal pads and pencils that do not roll off the desk because they have square erasers and, lately, a little more on the computer."
I Never Do Anything Twice, is a song Sondheim wrote for a madam to sing in the Sherlock Holmes film The Seven Percent Solution. It's a raucous piece and is about five minutes long. Just 30 seconds made the film.
He came to Sweeney Todd out of his love of Grand Guignol. He knew the story and, outside of London, saw the play by Christopher Bond, was intrigued and the rest is theater history.
He talked about plans in the works to make Into The Woods as a film by Jim Henson Productions. "Rob Marshall will direct and James Lapine is writing the script.
At the end of the evening, after Ebersole and Mitchell had performed the songs noted above, as well as music from Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Sunday In the Park With George, the performers thanked Sondheim for the opportunity of singing his music.
Sondheim said, "When you get people like Christine and Stokes to sing them, it makes them worth writing."
The evening seemed many of us in the audience to have ended too quickly but the event was proof positive - proof beyond any doubt - that the Smith Center for the Arts is a major asset to Las Vegans who love and/or want to learn about and experience the arts. Long may it thrive!